New Orleans: Almost a month ago, an email surprised me in the way that one forgets can happen. One becomes so inured to spam and the unknown knocking at one’s mail box, that you forget that the other side of having a portal in cyberspace is that you can also be found by those you have lost or to the random handshake across space. The awe of those occurrences has often been beaten down by the frustration with the constant commercial barrage, but that’s another story for another day….
The point is that an email came calling that bore bad news, though news that I much appreciated receiving and that the sender must have known would have been important to me. The email bore the news of the sudden death of Barbara Rivera of Springfield, Massachusetts along with her obituary. I was surprised to see that Barbara was 69. She had seemed ageless to me somehow from the first time I had ever met her. Figuring quickly, I knew her when I was just starting as an organizer at 20 years old and she must have been 32 then, a young woman, but she had even then seemed timeless — a rock on which smaller waves would constantly break.
I had arrived in Springfield in the early summer of 1969 on a vague assignment to organize welfare rights chapters in the city for the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), the “largest organization of poor people in America,” which was the mantra I constantly repeated and meant, frankly, everything to me. I started organizing drives quickly on the Hill — the African-American section of the city — as well as the North End, a mixed neighborhood of white, black, and Puerto Rican families, which included the city’s largest housing project, Riverside. Later, I would organize additional chapters in nearby Memorial Square, in the South End, in Robinson Gardens — another housing project, but these two areas were my first drives.
Among my early contacts in the North End were Teddy Sylvester, the director of the North End Community Center (a United Way supported operation) and her program director, Roger Brunelle, a former catholic brother from Haverhill. They quickly pointed me towards Barbara Rivera, who was something between a part-time volunteer and a member of their staff, but clearly was one of their keys to the neighborhood. Barbara had experience with the business end of receiving welfare. She had young children, who I remember well, along with her husband, Pancho, and quickly I was adopted into her tribe in some way or fashion. Barbara was an original though. A large, white woman with deep roots in towns near Springfield, she knew politics because her grandfather (or father, the memory dims over 36 years!) had been the Mayor of Chicopee (or West Chicopee?), but she had gone her own way, married Pancho and tried to stay above water with a growing family.
I quickly found another young woman, Carmen Rivera and her sister, who both hit hundreds of doors with me all over the North End and Riverside as they carried me along with my few phrases of Spanish which I would intersperse: “el groupo!, mas dinero ahora! El cheque! and so forth, while Carmen or whomever I was doorknocking with carried the rap. There were other great leaders in these drives as well. On the hill there was Simone St. Jacque and Vera Smith.
Barbara’s obit dates her activism to those days and mentions that she was arrested. Actually, she was too smart — and valuable — to get arrested, unless it happened after I had moved on to Boston as head organizer of Massachusetts Welfare Rights Organization. Barbara had courage and presence, and this is how I will always remember her from an incident on one particular day.
It was October 15th. A lot of things were happening that day. It was Viet Nam Moratorium Day, so students at Springfield College were doing a teach-in. There was also a bus strike that had clogged the transportation from the high schools that were all at the foot of the Hill putting hundreds of students on their feet to get home on the Hill. Springfield Welfare Rights had called a “pick-up” day at the welfare office on the Hill where we had demanded that they have the money ready for winter coats for adults. I had asked Barbara and one other leader to speak for Springfield WRO at the moratorium rally at the bottom of the Hill, so that they would be able to ask the students for solidarity for our action, so she was not with us when we marched on the welfare office with 300 ladies to demand our winter coats. It was no time before we quickly broke through the side door of the office and over ran it. Mr. Durkin, the director of the office, agreed to negotiations and Vera, Barbara, Simone, and others met with him, demanding that he call Boston so that they would allow him to release the money for winter coats. I was working the crowd and dealing with the fifty or so students with the Springfield College Black Student Union that had now also joined us inside the welfare office and were grouped in the back of the open space trying to figure out how to support us.
As our sit-in turned to hours, we were in a jam. Boston was not budging. What did they care about a mess in Springfield, no matter how loudly Durkin and our leaders screamed into the phone? Finally, the police would tolerate no more of this and started to issue ultimatums to leave the building. The ladies voted to take the arrest and the 200 of them still in the building at this point prepared for the police. In a way that seems almost quaint in the 21st century, the police wanted to arrest all of the men first, and there was a tug of war briefly between the ladies and the police as they came through the demonstrators to drag me to the paddy wagon and whisk me away.
Vera, Barbara, and others led the ladies with dignity following the police out of the front door of the welfare office expecting to be placed into paddy wagons and hauled away, but they then realized that they had been tricked. The police were simply trying to get them out of the building, not take them to jail as they had voted. Vera saw the police roughing up Simone, a white leader attracting more attention, and literally jumped through the plate glass window to pull her out of their hands and to the waiting arms of the rest of the ladies. Vera was from rural Alabama and was arrested the next day for malicious damage.
Someone…a student, a kid from the neighborhood seeing the police or it could have been anyone at that point…threw a brick. The police did not have on riot gear. More rocks were coming. My paddy wagon was pulling out along the side door in the middle of this as the throwing and yelling began.
Barbara somehow, bigger than life, managed to wrangle all of the welfare rights members into a picket line in front of the welfare office chanting, as she told me later, alternately for winter coats or for the police to “Free Wade.” The very outrageous, courageous, audacity of a couple of hundred women on welfare falling back on their collective experience and training and continuing their “action” in the middle of a riot quelled the crowd for a while. Others joined them, especially students from the college, and for a while the rocks stopped and there was nothing but the noise supporting the welfare rights demand. By force of will and a depth of leadership that surprised her and everyone else, Barbara imposed herself, if ever so briefly, through the chaos of thousands of people, creating calm with her courage in that moment. Her only explanation later to me was that “I could only think to do what we had always done before.” This was a great leader.
I was arrested for inciting to riot. Several were injured. There were millions of dollars worth of property damages from looting and fires, especially on the Hill. There was a three day curfew with another several hundred arrested. The action made Prada in the USSR, as the local papers pointed out. Sam Brown later said was of the hardest things about Viet Nam Moratorium Day was keeping the Springfield Welfare Riot out of the papers.
We spent that Thanksgiving at Barbara’s house on Abbe Street with her family. My brother came up from Yale where he was going to school at the time. I had dropped out of Williams for good and would never go back.
Barbara over the years founded a huge community center in the Memorial Square area called the New North Community Center with millions of dollars worth of programs. One of her daughters was elected to the state legislator. Another worked runs the Catholic Charities program. I saw her a couple of times over the years, but not often. If I was ever in the area, I would try to go by. Once a couple of years ago, I waited for a Congressman to get out of her office in order to visit with her a few minutes before hearing to the airport. She made her mark in Springfield and in her community, and I was always very proud of her.
But, never as proud of her as the day she did the impossible and put order, if only briefly, into the chaos and led our people, chanting, singing, and marching in a disciplined circle in front of the welfare office. She had to have been scared to death, but she rose like a mountain to the moment.
We did not win winter coats. It will be colder in the country without Barbara.